Archive for January, 2007

On Saturday night, my woodwind quintet Child’s Play was premiered here. I wrote about the piece when I completed it last August, and I’m happy with how it turned out. The concert hall was packed, but the occasion wasn’t my piece, it was the return of oboist Joe Robinson, who taught here in the mid-70s before becoming Principal Oboe of the NY Philharmonic. Joe has retired from the Phil and bought a home @80 miles east of here. He has pulled together an all-star ensemble to tour the state. My piece, along with the rest of the program, was repeated last night at Duke University, although I didn’t attend.

As happy as I am with my piece, the find of the concert for me was Ludwig Thuille’s Sextet for piano and winds. It’s a strong work from a contemporary of Richard Strauss. I had thought that Poulenc wrote the only listenable sextet for piano and winds, but this piece was outstanding: you can set it beside any work of Brahms – it was written at the same time as the latter’s C Minor Piano Trio and Double Concerto – and it will come across favorably.

I had never heard of Thuille before this concert, so I looked him up. Apparently this sextet is the only piece of his that is still performed. He seems to have focused mostly on chamber music and opera, fading from the scene at about the time that Strauss was becoming widely renowned. Doesn’t seem like he did much in his last 10 years, aside for teaching in Munich. He died in his mid-forties.

Wonderful to know that there are still great pieces from so long ago for me to discover.

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ICE left town Sunday evening, leaving behind a wintry mix and some deeply inspired musicians.

Okay, I know, the corny ICE puns are getting tired. I promise I’ll stop.

The highlight of their visit was the last event: a recording session of five works by student composers. We’ve had guest contemporary ensembles do reading sessions many times before, and they are all very helpful, but this one was extraordinary. Part of the reason is that we’ve become better at organizing the sessions on our end, but a lot of it had to do with the commitment and skill of our guests. Each student came away with an outstanding recording, and a lot to think and talk about in the weeks to come.

The concert the night before was full of goodies. It started off with Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint, which is a piece I’d enjoy more on recording than live, because you can’t help trying to listen for the live flutist in all of the recorded flute counterpoint, which is a futile exercise. Elliott Carter’s Esprit rude/esprit doux II is okay but not one of my favorites – as my wife says, it sounds a bit like Carter doing Carter, rather than a compelling work on its own merits.

But the rest of the concert was great, especially pieces by Huang Ruo and Franco Donatoni. Huang Ruo’s: Concerto No. 3: Divergence is one of a series of pieces he has written for the ensemble. It has all of the things you would hope to hear in a young composer: fresh, vivid ideas, over-the-top theatrics, a couple of creative dead ends – things he probably benefited from trying once. And Donatoni’s Arpege was full of arresting combinations and intricately woven games.

I have further thoughts on the concert that I hope to get to in a future post.

We also had two master classes, a round table lunch, a symposium and a number of informal encounters. About the only downer was the cancellation of their flight from Newark, which meant they arrived late and we had to compress some of their activities. Continental said the cancellation was due to weather, but I’m suspicious, because I was under the impression that we always have weather. It’s clear to me that the airline is involved in some kind of a conspiracy against new music.

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On Wednesday, I hopped in my car and drove two hours east to hear the North Carolina Symphony in rehearsal. That’s a ways to go to hear a rehearsal, but this wasn’t just any rehearsal: the orchestra was devoting 45 minutes to a new work by Joseph Edwards. I was honored to be there, because I got to sit next to the composer.
The composer happens to be a student of mine.

Two years ago, The North Carolina Symphony announced a competition for composers in the state under the age of thirty. As one of the three finalists, Joseph spent a couple of days last January hanging out with their Music Director Grant Llewellyn along with guest composers Jennifer Higdon and Edgar Meyer. He also got valuable professional advice from several members of the orchestra’s staff and administration. The finalists were given feedback on the pieces they had submitted, then they were given four months to revise and resubmit.

The news that Joseph had won first prize came early last June.

As the competition winner, Joseph gets a nifty cash prize along with professionally prepared, published score and parts, a recording session, and a performance next season. I was happy to tag along for this event, and another student, James Stewart, was able to come as well.

The orchestra, under the direction of Assistant Conductor Joan Landry, did a lovely job with the piece, quickly refining balances and tempos until the music really shone. The ensemble work was outstanding, and the solo passages were magic. The North Carolina Symphony is in excellent shape, one of a number of great orchestras in this country that gets significantly less attention than it deserves, while other, lesser orchestras get a steady dose of media coverage. Their Meymandi Hall dates from 2001, and it’s a fantastic place to listen to music, with that elusive combination of clarity and resonance.

And I’ve got to hand it to the orchestra for taking its responsibility to the music of our time, and of the future, so seriously. These kinds of initiatives are cropping up in various places in the country, which is a very heartening sign.

I’m very proud of Joseph: his piece is handsome and evocative. He’s just a college junior, but he managed to avoid every trap that novice composers typically make when writing for orchestra. And I’m especially proud of how little I had to do with this piece: I don’t think I’ve ever given so little critical feedback to an orchestral work by a student composer before. Joseph truly wrote the piece himself.

As nice as it was to hear Joseph’s music come to life, it was also wonderful to spend four hours in a car with these two young composers, talking about writing, listening and whatever else came to mind. They are both widely traveled, curious and thoughtful fellows; I learn a lot from listening to them.

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The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) has had pretty phenomenal success in just a few years of existence. I first heard of the group about four years ago, when a respected colleague told me that they were something to keep an eye on. Since then, I’ve had trouble keeping an eye off of them, since they seem to be popping up all over the place.

Part of the secret to this ubiquity is their structure: a thirty-member core spread over two cities – New York and Chicago. Adjunct musicians are hired for special projects. As a result, they can perform completely different programs in several different locations all on the same night.

ICE will be in residence here at the North Carolina School of the Arts this weekend, giving masterclasses, seminars, a recording session of student works and a concert of music by Steve Reich, Philippe Manoury, Elliott Carter, Franco Donatoni, Earle Brown and Huang Ruo

I’ll have a report next week. I’m very hopeful for an excellent residency.

And, after all, with the weather finally turning cold, I’m happy to encourage ICE wherever I see it.

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“I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can’t do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it. I write because I want others, the whole world, to know what sort of life we lived, and continue to live, in Istanbul, in Turkey. I write because I love the smell of paper, pen and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but – as in a dream – can’t quite get to. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.” Orhan Pamuk, The Nobel Lecture, 2006, translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely.

This excerpt from Pamuk’s Nobel Lecture was in a recent New Yorker issue. I’ve long envied writers the existence of New Yorker and a few other periodicals, in which a wide public audience has an opportunity to contemplate the artistic and professional musings of some of the most interesting practitioners of their craft. I wished there could be a public forum in which composers would regularly share their deepest convictions, experiences and hopes with such honesty and self-awareness. Can you imagine New Yorker publishing a speech by a major composer? I can’t.

That’s why I welcomed the arrival of blogs a few years ago, quickly developing an addiction to Kyle Gann’s, in which someone was finally opening a window to the composer’s daily world – the aspirations and frustrations of devoting a life to putting notes together.

Kyle’s blog is more successful than most, because in addition to his composing, he is also a very persuasive writer. But one thing that dissatisfies me about his blog is his skill as a critic and teacher. Not that there is anything wrong with being a critic or teacher – I’m a teacher myself — it’s just that critics and teachers have always written about music, and composers have far less frequently written about composing. (Kyle, if you are reading, that’s not a criticism, it’s a compliment)

The obvious reason for this disparity is the relative level of difficulty. It’s much easier (though far from easy) to write about a piece of music than it is to write about composing. When describing compositional processes, we often fall back on inscrutable technical terminology because it’s difficult to put anything else we do into words.

I got into blogging with the hope that I would be able to find a way to write about what it is we do. After two years, I can’t say I’m at all satisfied with my results so far. But I’m going to keep plugging away at it, because there is an enormous gap in the public’s knowledge when it comes to composition, and I think this kind of discussion could be a very helpful bridge.

Of course, I’d feel a whole lot better about it if I could write with half the clarity and ferocity of Mr. Pamuk.

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A month ago, I wrote about Piotr Szewczyk’s Violin futura project, reporting that he had commissioned 15 composers to write one-minute pieces for solo violin, which he would perform as a group on a series of recitals. I responded to his request with a piece called Fifteen Minutes – a collection of fifteen one-minute works for violin. Piotr corrected me, pointing out that he had asked for a 2-3 minute piece. Embarrassed by my mistake, I responded the following week by writing Mister Blister, a 3-minute presto for solo violin.

On New Year’s Day, I sent off PDFs of Fifteen Minutes and Mister Blister. A few days later, I got this response:

Dear Lawrence,

Thank you very much for your 16 pieces!
Both pieces are terrific and I’d like to definitely perform the whole 15 Minutes set and Mister Blister in my program. I’m currently learning all pieces and will be making “first-draft” recordings in the next few weeks to get responses from all composers. I’ll keep you posted.

Thank you again,
Sincerely,

Piotr

I hear many horror stories from composers about their dealings with clueless or malicious performers. I have to say I’ve been very fortunate in working with dedicated, curious, imaginative musicians pretty regularly. Sending the composer a rough-draft recording of a performance-in-progress is a new experience for me, though; I’m very impressed by Piotr’s initiative. At this point, if I’m not mistaken (and I hardly trust myself after my last blunder), he has several performances lined up this spring at New World Symphony, with others to come at Spoleto, Tanglewood and elsewhere.

You can learn more about Piotr here.

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At this point in my life, composing requires solitude, silence, space. The daily journey, strung out through a lifetime, to tap into the sounds that flicker around the edge of my consciousness calls for a dedication that is difficult to obtain in an environment with too many distractions. Most of my adult life I’ve been trying to establish the ideal setting in which to compose — no easy task, unless one is willing to forego much else that life offers.My dream studio would have a piano, a computer, a not-too-comfortable chair, a lushly comfortable sofa, and a pervasive quietude.

I lived alone from 1995-2003, coming very close to my ideal composition setting, though living in somewhat cramped quarters. Now my living circumstances are much more comfortable, but my composing space is no longer my sole province: it is primarily my space, but also shared with loved ones. Fortunately, these loved ones are respectful of my needs, so all I have to do is gently express those needs and the space is all mine, for as long as I require.

But ultimately I insist from myself the discipline and focus to be able to compose under any circumstances. This insistence dates back to my graduate days, living in a cramped, noisy studio apartment in Brooklyn, working three part-time jobs and commuting on weekends to Connecticut for a long-distance relationship. How to fit composing into that lifestyle? Dreaming about an ideal creative setting was definitely not the answer. I just had to train myself to shut out distractions, to establish a creative flow that was capable of feeding itself, without outside nurturance. Composing on a bus, on a subway, in the middle of the night – it didn’t matter, I couldn’t allow it to matter, or my work would come to a halt.

So now I am immensely grateful for the comfortable and supportive environment I have for composing, and I’m taking advantage of it to as full a degree as possible.

But I like to believe I could maintain my workflow even if I lost these near-ideal circumstances.

Still looking for that sofa, though.

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The New Year is a convenient signpost from which to look back on my second year of blogging. In this case, reviewing the past is helpful to the reviewer, as an assessment of where I’ve been. If you find this kind of thing tiresome, please read no further.
January

The February issue of Chamber Music magazine hits the bulk mailboxes, with Kyle Gann’s wonderful article on my work. Also, my String Quartet No. 3: Air is premiered, prompting this very nice featurein the Winston-Salem Journal.

February

The International Horn Society announces a prize for Revenant: Concerto for Horn and Orchestra.

March

Amadeus ex machina tours Austria as part of the 250th birthday celebration for Mozart.

April

Augusta Read Thomas was the featured guest of our Twenty-first Century Residencies program, reported on here and here.

May

American premiere of What Happened.

June

John Kennedy conducts the Spoleto Festival Orchestra in a successful performance of Amadeus ex machina.

July

Seven performances of Wright Flight take off from the Outer Banks.

August

Completion of Symphony No. 2: Singing silver.

September

The remarkable Kyle Gann pays a visit.

October

Appendage is the featured work on the 2006 Shake It Up Festival in Greensboro.

November

Premiere of Singing silver, performed by the composer and ICE, at the first Sequenza21 concert in New York.

December

Jeffrey James Arts Consulting publishes the 2007 edition of Cadenza.

Here’s looking forward to a peaceful and productive 2007 for all of you.

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